Everywhere around me, I see stories upon stories of people who want to become full-time writers publishing their own blogs or authoring books. As someone who wants to make writing a way of life, this is very discouraging. I feel like a drop in the ocean and ask myself, “Will I even make the cut?” How in the world do I even break through this thick crowd of pros, semi-pros and wannabe writers (like me)? I feel like standing in front of a jam-packed subway train in Tokyo reluctant, hesitant and unwilling to board but there’s these otherworldly white-gloved ‘pushers’ that are cramming me in there when it looks like it’s already full. And I kept wondering, in this very saturated market, is there really room for me?
All my life, I ignored the passion I’ve always had for writing. But from the countless pages of my journal when I was young and all the way through the numerous press releases that I’ve had to write, that little bugger had been tapping on my shoulder asking, “Are you done ignoring me yet?” And whoever is on its side, they joined forces to wreak havoc in my life to make sure I finally paid attention. These same forces are the ‘white-gloved pushers’ in my life.
Truth be told, I didn’t really know I had a knack for writing until I heard others say something about it. The first time, I was about 14 or 15 and I overheard my mother saying to someone that she read my journal and didn’t realize I could write that well. Honestly, the “she could write really well” part didn’t sink in because I was too busy being livid towards her for invading my privacy. I also wrote some pieces about certain experiences I’ve had and shared them with my friends and they loved it. Still, I didn’t think much of it. To me, it’s still very much like writing on my journal, except that I let them read it, so it didn’t really count.
The time came when I had to decide what course to take in college. My mother had always said to people, “She’s free to take any course she wants.” And so, I came up to her one day and told her that I wanted to become a writer. She replied, “Really? Writers don’t earn squat.” Translation: “Hell, no. There’s no way you’re becoming a writer. You need to pursue something practical.” So, I studied Communications instead. Close enough, I thought. I could still do some writing doing that, right?
But as reality would have it, jobs were scarce and I took any job from any company that would hire me so I could start earning some dough. Those jobs had nothing to do with writing at all. It wasn’t until I moved into the corporate side of the world that I began to write. A lot. But I didn’t necessarily write about things that I like. There were ‘human interest’ stories within the companies I worked for that brought out the best in me, but many of them involved me being a spin doctor that made me feel like I’ve sold my soul to the devil. But hey, it’s what pays my bills, so I continued to follow the money trail.
But the ‘white-gloved pushers’ got me to stop ignoring this passion by turning my life upside down and inside out. I lost my job. And with that I lost the corporate career I built from the ground up. Like a real go-getter I started to look for another job but no matter what I did, I mostly ended up in the last two spots and never got the job. Oh, those pushers are good. They finally got my attention.
But it meant I had to start over and I didn’t even know where to begin.
I paid for courses, read many books and subscribed to the so-called experts but after following their advice I just couldn’t make it work. I struggled, just like many others, to carry myself over the threshold. Finally, I started to shut everything out completely and started tuning in to myself. What works for me? What kind of carrot do I hang at the end of the stick to get me going like a hungry rabbit?
By way of trial and error, these are the things that I learned that did the trick.
1. We are not built the same
We tend to think about secret formulas or recipes for success, when in fact, what works for John may not work for Mary.
In the first episode of Will Smith’s Bucket List, his wife asked him what he wanted for his birthday and he told her it was skydiving. But it wasn’t just him — he also took his wife, his two sons, and his parents-in-law with him. In the end, everybody landed back on the ground without problem, except for one — his father-in-law. Strapped on the tandem instructor, he was unconscious when they reached the ground. They thought he had a mild heart attack but, thankfully, it turned out to be a heart contusion. But still.
Will said to his family, “That’s the thing about bucket list — mortality. You have to live a certain way. You have to live in a way that’s unique and organic for you because you never know.” Will’s son Jaden boldly replied to him, “That’s the thing, and you know this, and I hope this time you take this seriously: Everybody’s not just built like you. Or else, everybody will be like you and they’re not.”
It is always a good thing to study and learn from others. But at the end of the day, you need to learn what makes YOU tick and work around that. We are unique individuals. Bill Gates did things differently than Steve Jobs yet they both made their marks on their turf.
2. I don’t have to get up at 3 a.m. for me to be productive
How many times have you heard others say that successful people start their day at 3 a.m. and sleep for only 5 hours a day? Too many. Including this tweet from Inc.:
“The world’s most successful people start their day at 4 a.m.”
I wanted to kiss J.K. Rowling for her response: “Oh, piss off.”If getting up really early works for you, live long and prosper. But I happen to like sleep. Must. Have. Sleep. If I don’t sleep enough, I don’t have as much energy, I become cranky and unable to focus. I am no good half alive. Some of us are morning people, some perform better in the afternoon, and some thrive at night. Personally, I am at my best after lunch. When I’ve done things that I need to do in the morning, I am able to concentrate more on writing because I no longer have those unticked items on my to-do list lingering at the back of my mind.
So, I stopped even trying to wake up early. At least not at 3 or 4 or even 5 a.m. It just won’t work for me.
3. Structure is good, but I don’t turn it into a routine
Don’t experts say that successful people stick to a routine? I hate routines. I don’t like to rinse, lather and repeat. Routine zaps my creativity. If I have to live my life based on a routine, I’d die. It’s not to say I don’t put structure into my writing, because I do. I dedicate time for it. But what happens if your father-in-law drops in unannounced (because you know, he’s retired and has plenty of time in his hands) and used up your writing hours? Will you throw in the towel and not write anymore that day because the rest of your day has been allotted for something else?
In the real world, sh*t happens. I need to be flexible and adjust. I don’t want to be like Sheldon Cooper whose life stops making sense just because his friends ordered Greek food on pizza night.
4. I focus on one thing and one thing only
If the idea of starting a blog or writing for a publication (oh, all those articles to write!) overwhelms you and freezes you up, welcome to my world. When I decided to submit articles to online publications, I had a long list of what I planned to write but the thought of writing all of them made the whole process daunting and I backed away.
So, I got rid of that list and started to focus on one thing at a time — a blog entry, an article, whatever — and focus on that to get me over that hurdle. It took me years but I learned to manage the multitasking mode in my system. Focus, Daniel-san. Don’t worry about steps 2 to 100 and put all your energy on step 1.
5. If at first I don’t succeed….
It’s so cliché but perseverance is truly a must. Rejection is very real. Like many others, I faced it more than I care to count. To say that you need to develop a thick skin is an understatement. Doors being slammed in your face? Been there, done that, got the tattoo, but I got used to it (sort of). I get over a rejection (for however long it takes me) and move on.
If a publication doesn’t accept my submission, I try another — and another, and another — like a door-to-door salesman. It doesn’t necessarily mean that my piece is ‘bad’; maybe it’s just not a good fit for them. Either I find publications that do fit or I try the same ones again with a different piece.
6. I stopped getting hung up on the numbers
Sadly, we now live in a world of likes, followers and whatnot. Everyone hopes that their stuff goes viral. I get it. After all, what’s the point of writing something if nobody reads it? Thousands, if not millions, of engagement is fantastic. But I need to remind myself, over and over again, that it shouldn’t be my goal.
The first article that got accepted for publication online received almost 2,000 reads. I was stoked! I thought it was amazing for my very first try. But the next two articles had less than 400 reads. I got discouraged and stopped submitting. I thought they must no longer want my stuff because they were no longer performing as well as the first one. But after several months of ‘silence,’ the editor of the publication emailed me asking why I haven’t submitted anything. Reluctantly, I started sending her my stuff again. Later, she told me that she really enjoyed reading them. I realized, that is the real number I’m after. If one person actually enjoyed reading it, that’s what matters. Everything else is a bonus.
My first submission to Medium was chosen as “Featured” but the stats were low. But it didn’t matter to me anymore. If my story helps just one person in a tangible way, that is much better than having 2,000 reads that didn’t make an impact. Don’t get me wrong, having high stats is great, but I try not to make that matter the most.
7. I stopped assuming I know what the readers (and editors) want
Coming from the communications field, I’m no stranger to tailoring messages for specific audiences. When I decided to give this becoming-a-writer thing a go, I kept hearing experts say that my stuff needs to solve my target readers’ problem. But I don’t want to solve anyone’s problem. I just want to share my stories and if it helps anyone, then mission accomplished.
But more importantly, who really knows what the readers want anyway? Articles that I wrote that I thought would get accepted or do well, didn’t; and those that I thought would bomb did exactly the opposite.
When author Steven Pressfield wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance, he thought that it would go straight to the bin but sold 450,000 copies of it instead. It had also been made into a movie starring Will Smith and Matt Damon. So, I don’t believe that anyone knows for sure what would work and what wouldn’t so I learned not to judge my work too quickly as good or bad. I just do the work and see what happens.
8. I remind myself to write from the heart
I’ve learned to never underestimate the energy I transfer through my work. Stories that I wrote that came straight from the heart end up doing well. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
At my last employer, my bosses decided to bring in a couple of well-known communications expert to help improve the quality of the content our team produced across all media. Before they came, they asked my boss to prepare a selection of the stuff we’ve written so they could evaluate where we are in the suck-o-meter. On the first day, they picked out two samples of writing — one that was insanely good and another that was pathetically bad. Both of them were mine. Holding up the printed articles, they joked, “Juvie with meds. Juvie without the meds.” I was proud and ashamed at the same time.
The ‘good’ story was good because my heart was in it. It contained hilarious adventures of an Englishman who worked as an expat in Egypt — like how he’d had to explain to the locals why he didn’t speak Arabic when he lookedlike an Egyptian or wished he had brought a blindfold for the taxi ride through Cairo when he first arrived. I enjoyed writing it. I enjoyed talking to the person I was interviewing. I enjoyed asking him the questions about things I wanted to know about his experiences. So, my own energy while putting the story together came through.
As far as the bad story goes, I could blame the subject of the interview and the topic — a technical, engineering project — but the truth is, it was my fault. I wasn’t the least interested in it and so I didn’t even try to make it interesting. I didn’t dig deeper. I didn’t find the human nuggets in the story. I just put together a bunch of words and I called it a day.
So, here’s my personal guideline: “Do I really want to write the story, so much so that I would do it even if nobody reads it?” If the answer is a resounding yes, I go ahead and do it, even if I am just writing it for myself.
If you’re struggling to get your foot in the door, you’re not alone. But you probably know that already. As an aspiring writer myself, I hope that some of the things that I shared here could help you on your own path. If none of the ‘secret formulas for success’ that worked for others do anything for you, you can always cook up your own recipe with ingredients that work especially for you. Doing so doesn’t make you odd. It’s just being creative.